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Water, water… everywhere?

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Water, water… everywhere?
24 Sep
The recent heatwave had everyone longing for a drop of rain to break the sweltering conditions. But with future summers predicted to get even worse, knowing how to get the best from your water shots is increasingly vital

Now, that was a scorcher! Right across Europe this summer has been one of the driest and hottest on record. Here in the UK, comparisons have been made to the infamous summer of 1976 when the highest recorded temperature was 35.6°C on June 28 in Southampton. But what makes the 2018 heatwave exceptional is the extent of its reach, with record-breaking temperatures across North America, North Africa and the Far East, not just Europe. For example, the highest temperature reliably recorded anywhere in Africa this summer so far was a searing 51.3°C in Algeria in July. During the same month, much of the UK experienced successive days of temperatures in the mid-30s. Even Glasgow hit 31.9°C! But more extraordinary were the high temperatures in excess of 30°C recorded in the Arctic Circle, triggering wildfires in the forests of Swedish Lapland.

It isn’t just the extreme heat that is hitting the headlines, but the prolonged periods without rain. For example, the southeast of England experienced its driest June on record with only six per cent of the average rainfall for the month. The Met Office recorded 1.7mm of rainfall in Essex for June, Dorset had 2mm and Middlesex barely a wisp of moisture with just 0.7mm, while some parts of the UK had more than 50 days with no rain from the end of May to mid-July. As a country renowned for its regular rainfall, this British summer has gone against type in a way that only 1976 can match. However, there was no concept of ‘Climate Change’ in the national lexicon in 1976, yet in the 21st century, scientists believe this is the reason behind the recent pattern of drier and hotter summers worldwide.


‘Global temperatures are increasing due to climate change,’ says Len Shaffrey, professor of climate science at Reading University. ‘The global rise in temperatures means the probability that an extreme heatwave will occur is also increasing.’ The professor’s words are supported by recent statistics: 2017 was ranked as the second-warmest on record by NASA and third-warmest by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The temperature data and records for the planet, monitored independently by both these American agencies, go back to 1880 and reveal that the six hottest years have all occurred since 2010, with 2016 being the hottest of all.

This trend of increasing global temperatures is placing greater pressure on the planet’s water resources, already under stress from the demand of an ever-growing human population. Until recently, water had been taken for granted for so long that it seemed impossible that a major city should ever run dry. However, that was the prospect facing Cape Town in South Africa earlier this year following the worst drought in a century.

2018 began with the city’s government calculating that on April 12 the reservoirs serving Cape Town would dip too low to deliver potable water. It called this ‘Day Zero’ and drastic water restrictions were introduced to push back that date in the hope that rain would eventually break the crisis. Residents were rationed to 50 litres each per day. As a comparison, the daily average water consumption per person in the UK is 149 litres. Fortunately, the drought broke and good winter rains meant that Cape Town’s Day Zero has been pushed back to 2019, but daily restrictions of 87 litres per person currently remain in force for the city.



It is hard to imagine a major city in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ facing that sort of water crisis, but after such a long, dry summer and the prospect of similar summers to come, it remains a real possibility. The WWF believes London faces such a risk. ‘The southeast of England is the most water-stressed area of the UK and faces the fastest population growth,’ says WWF’s head of climate & energy, Gareth Redmond-King. ‘Already, some of the precious chalk streams in the region regularly run dry because of our water use. The Greater London Authority has now warned of water supply problems to the city as soon as 2025.’

What few people realise is that ‘rainy’ London actually receives less annual rainfall than some of the world’s sunnier cities, such as Orlando, Miami, Sydney and Milan, so the supply and conservation of water is a major priority for planning future growth of Europe’s largest city. If you think being rationed to 50 litres of water a day wouldn’t be a difficult undertaking should London be faced with a ‘Day Zero’ countdown, then consider these facts about the UK’s current water usage: 50 litres is the average amount of water used when taking a shower; washing machines use 55 litres per wash; dishwashers need 15 litres per cycle and toilets use six litres per flush. But Britain’s biggest water indulgence of all is the bath – 115 litres to splash suds and play with rubber ducks!


While the longer and more frequent dry spells experienced this decade are being interpreted by scientists as another symptom of climate change, they are also making more of us aware, albeit if only briefly, of water’s vital importance to our very existence. No longer can we take it for granted, always there for our consumption at the turn of a tap. The sight of shrinking dams and reservoirs, dry river beds and wilting crops, or of waterfalls reduced to a trickle, should remind us that water indeed can run out, even if really does seem to be everywhere in the British landscape – especially when raining.

Whether as hillside lake, meandering stream, tumbling waterfall, or man-made reservoir, water takes on many guises and how you depict it in a photograph depends largely upon its prominence and position in the overall scene. A classic example (and one of the most photographed landscapes in Britain) is the pyramidal mountain peak of Buachaille Etive Mor, near Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands. Forming a ridge approximately eight kilometres in length, this picturesque mountain is almost encircled by the River Etive and a tributary, the Coupall. The widely photographed northeast face is usually composed with the falls of the River Coupall in the foreground to add movement and a lead-in line to the main subject of the composition.

The main decision to be taken here is how to depict the running water of this small, winding watercourse: as a soft blur or with glass-like clarity, the light reflecting off its surface? Shutter speed selection is the key to achieving the desired effect – the longer the shutter is kept open the more image blur will be recorded. An exposure of around two seconds will capture the falls as a white rush of frothing water, while speeds of around 1/60sec or faster will keep the water’s surface shape. Of course, the quicker a river or waterfall is flowing, the faster your shutter speed needs to be to ‘freeze’ any movement.


As visitors to England’s Lake District will immediately appreciate, one of water’s most appealing photographic qualities is its reflectance. When looking out over Derwentwater, Windermere or any of these long stretches of water on a still morning without a whisper of breeze, it is common to describe the surface as being ‘like glass’. In these conditions water can indeed reflect the scene above the surface like a glass mirror. Well-lit reflections of surrounding trees and hills or lakeside boat houses provide an opportunity to make symmetrical and imaginative compositions. The best time for experiencing that glass-like surface is early on a cloudless morning in late autumn or winter, when the sun is low and the air crisp, still and cold. Mist is likely to be rising from the water’s surface, creating another atmospheric element to the scene, but when it dissipates (providing the air remains still), a perfect mirror reflection of the surroundings will be revealed.

A common question asked when photographing a mountain, castle or homestead reflected perfectly on the glass-like surface of a lake is: ‘do you focus on the reflection itself or the subject of the reflection?’ The answer is it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, the light reaching your camera lens is reflected from the surface of everything that is in front of you.

Of greater significance in deciding where to point your camera is the exposure reading of the scene. When shooting reflections, you need to bias your chosen exposure to a meter reading from the actual subject and not the reflected image on the water’s surface. The reason for this is that water can also magnify highlights from a bright sky, making it difficult to meter accurately. A polarising filter is therefore essential when photographing a large area of water: it filters out polarised light thereby reducing bright highlights and making the shallows beneath the water visible through the lens. 

As well as a polarising filter, your basic water photography kit should also include a lens hood for blocking out direct sunlight, and a tripod with a built-in spirit level to ensure the surface line of the body of water remains straight across the frame. Many images featuring a lake, or even a small mere, are spoiled by the water’s surface appearing to slope across the frame, so use a tripod and check the spirit level, before locking your camera tightly in place.

Finally, where there’s water there’s a risk of getting wet, so wear proper water resistant walking boots and always keep your camera gear in your bag or backpack when not in use.

This was published in the September 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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Related items


manfrotto mt055cxpro3 carbon fiber tripod 1034140
Tripods come in all weights and sizes, but it is important not to compromise on strength or stability. Carbon fibre is as light as aluminium, yet far stronger. The Manfrotto MT055CX PRO3 (£350) features four-section carbon fibre legs that use clip-locks for height adjustment. There is a 90° pivot system for the centre column that is ideal for use with wide-angle lenses. Fully extended shooting height is 1.83m and maximum load bearing weight for the head is 8kg.

CAMERA: Tilting screen full frame DSLR
Shooting water in the landscape often requires taking a position low down and close to the water’s edge, which makes it difficult to bend down and look through the viewfinder. A tilting LCD monitor such as that found on the Canon EOS 6D Mk II (£1,550 body only) is the proven answer. This latest update features a 26-megapixel sensor, 45-point autofocus system, built-in WiFi and GPS, and a 6.5fps burst shooting, all contained within a compact weather-sealed body weighing just 765g.

Scarpa walking boot
CLOTHING: Walking boots
The Scarpa Ranger series is a firm favourite for walkers, particularly in warmer conditions. The current version Scarpa Ranger II Active GTX (£165) features a waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex lining and a Hi-Flex midsole for optimum balance of support and walking comfort.


• Experiment with shutter speeds when photographing fast running water. Review the images on the monitor to check which amount of blurring or ‘freezing’ of movement is most aesthetically pleasing.

• Get up early. If the forecast is for a fine day with little breeze, then conditions will be ideal for shooting a mirror-calm lake in morning light.

• Use a tripod. It gives more exposure options, allows you to maximise depth of field, and ensures the camera is perfectly still when the shutter is fired.

• Rely on handholding the camera – it will be impossible to capture the surface of a lake perfectly level within the frame.

• Leave off the lens hood. When shooting in low sun or close to its direction, the lens hood helps to block direct sunlight from striking the lens and causing flare.

• Walk near the water’s edge with your camera in hand. If you lose your footing, you risk irreparable damage if camera and water make contact.

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University of Winchester

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